I find it surprising that this is the first book by Stephen Jay Gould to have been selected as a "Hal's Pick", since I own and have enjoyed reading many of them. I have had the pleasure of meeting and hearing Professor Gould speak several times and I wish I could write as well as he speaks extemporaneously.
Are fingerprints really unique? Or, more importantly, can fraction of a print from the scene of a crime reliably be used to identify a single suspect? I have wondered about this question, and was pleased to find that I'm not alone.
Henry Petroski, Professor of Engineering and Professor of History at Duke University, is a master at "humanizing" engineering by writing about the history and development of familiar objects such as paperclips and pencils. He seems to relish the challenges involved in writing engagingly to non-engineers about some of the most mundane objects in everyday life - things that we take for granted.
Artist David Hockney has a theory that some of the "old master" portrait painters secretly used cameras(!) to help them sketch their subjects. No, he's not saying that they had Polaroids or film. However, the camera obscura was available in the early 18th century, and the more practical camera lucida was invented in 1807. Did the great artists use these devices?
Of course it is unreasonable to put together a list of the 100 most important books of the century. On the other hand, it is a lot of fun for a scientific bibliophile like me to think and argue about what ought to be on such a list.
I bought "Faster" because of talent the author had shown for rendering extremely complicated science for the interested layperson. "Chaos", published in 1987 was a wonderful book, and Gleick's next one, "Genius: The Life and Times of Richard Feynman", also won a National Book Award. (I haven't read that one, however.) "Faster" is a good book, but was nevertheless something of a disappointment.
This year's exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History of artifacts from the 1915 scientific expedition to Antarctica led by Sir Ernest Shackleton has been accompanied by the publication of Caroline Alexander's book, which includes the documenting photographs of Frank Hurley (some of which could be seen on the Museum's Web site).
As soon as I heard about "Consilience", I figured it would likely be a "Pick of the Month", but I delayed buying it until it became available as a paperback through a book club (I buy just about all the books that appear in this column). This, the most recent book by the renowned Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson, was worth waiting for.
A year ago, a book entitled "The End of Science" by John Horgan claimed that there was nothing of significance left for science to uncover. It was not a "Hal's Pick" because I thought it was seriously mistaken, echoing the smug predictions of a century ago, just before the revolutions of quantum mechanics and relativity blew the lid off of classical science.
Some of the most incendiary minds of science have also verged on pathology; a few of them clearly have been mentally ill. Cliff Pickover describes the quirks and eccentric behaviors of some of these people, including Nikola Tesla (Chapter 1!), Oliver Heaviside, Richard Kirwan, Henry Cavendish, Francis Galton, and Theodore Kaczynski, among others.